Writing to Learn
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Writing to Learn

William Zinsser

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eBook - ePub

Writing to Learn

William Zinsser

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About This Book

This is an essential book for everyone who wants to write clearly about any subject and use writing as a means of learning.

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1. Hermes and the Periodic Table

As a boy I spent four years at a boarding school in Massachusetts called Deerfield Academy that had two legends attached to it. The first was its headmaster, Frank L. Boyden. When he was a young man just out of college, in 1902, he accepted a position that only a teacher desperate for a first job might have taken: running a moribund academy in the tiny village of Deerfield. The school had so few boys that the new headmaster had to play on the football and baseball teams himself. By the time I got there, in the mid-1930s, Frank Boyden had built Deerfield into one of the best secondary schools in the country, and when he retired, in 1968, his place in American education secure, he had been headmaster for sixty-six years. During all those years he also coached the football, basketball and baseball teams, continuing as an octogenarian to rap out sharp grounders for infield practice before every game. His favorite baseball strategy was the squeeze play—a mark, perhaps, of his Yankee practicality. He was an unusually small man with a plain New England face, slicked-down black hair, and metal-rimmed glasses; nobody would have noticed him in a crowd or picked him out as a leader. But three generations of boys were shaped for life by his values, and I was one of them.
The second legend was his wife, Helen Childs Boyden. A tall, bony woman with a face even plainer than her husband’s, she wore her black hair tied in a bun and she peered out at the world through thick glasses, triumphing over eyesight so bad that it would have immobilized a person of weaker will. Helen Childs had also come to Deerfield as a young teacher, fresh out of Smith College with a science degree. She married Frank Boyden in 1907 and for more than sixty years was a strengthening presence in his life and in the life of the school. She was best known, however, for her senior course in chemistry. The legend was that she could teach chemistry to anybody. As it turned out, she couldn’t teach it to me.
The fault was undoubtedly mine. I’m sure I didn’t want to learn chemistry. Probably I had also persuaded myself that I couldn’t learn chemistry, or any of the hard sciences. Those subjects were for all those people who had an aptitude for them—the ones who carried a slide rule and could take a radio apart. I was a liberal arts snob, illiterate about the physical world I lived in, incurious about how things worked. The courses I felt most comfortable with were English and languages, and in my extracurricular hours I indulged my other two loves—playing baseball and writing for the school newspaper. I did what came easiest and avoided what I might not be able to do well.
My favorite language was Latin. It transported me back to the classical world, and yet it was anything but dead—thousands of its roots were alive and well in English; in fact, no subject has been more useful to me as a writer and an editor. I took Latin for three years at Deerfield until there were no more courses left to take, finally getting beyond Caesar’s dreary wars and Cicero’s prim orations to Virgil’s Aeneid and Horace’s odes, finally discovering that the wonderful language also had a wonderful literature.
My teacher in that liberating third year was a man so venerable that he seemed to be a schoolmaster from the nineteenth century. Recalling him now, I think of pictures of Darwin as an old man. Charles Huntington Smith had silky white hair, a white mustache and a white goatee, and he wore the black suit and high collar befitting his age and dignity. But his eyes were young, and so were his passions for what he taught. He had turned his classroom into a small corner of ancient Rome. Large framed photographs of the Forum and the Colosseum hung on the walls, and he had also sent away for plaster reproductions of some of the great statues of antiquity. Hermes on tiptoe, beckoning the gods, was on his desk, and the Winged Victory was nearby, still sending her message about beauty and line across the centuries. Mr. Smith was obviously aware of the power exerted by the icons that inhabit the classrooms of our childhood; when I was in Italy during World War II, the first time I got a few days off I hitchhiked to Rome to see the Forum, though the distance was great and the hours I could spend there were short.
In my senior year reality caught up with me: I had to take Mrs. Boyden’s chemistry. I remember her classroom almost as vividly as Mr. Smith’s. I can still smell its acrid smells, alien to my humanist nose. I can still see the retorts and beakers and other strangely shaped vessels designed for measuring whatever they were designed to measure. But the icon that dominates my memory is the huge chart of the periodic table of the elements that hung at the front of the room. Those cryptic letters and numbers, so neatly arranged in their boxes and columns, were the Hermes and Venus of the chemistry class—the gods whose laws and whims would rule our lives. Each box contained its own tremendous story of natural forces working out an ordained pattern. What could that story possibly be? I never found out. The periodic table continues to rebuke me for my indolence.
Mrs. Boyden had devised a teaching method that I remember as slightly cute but that obviously worked for three generations of boys. It had something to do with one molecule joining hands with another and going off to form a different combination. I must have resisted these little romances, for by about April someone in authority began to think the unthinkable: I would flunk the college entrance exam in chemistry. This would not only ruin my chances of getting into Princeton; it would besmirch Deerfield’s proud record of placing its seniors in America’s best colleges.
The solution was for me to take the Latin exam instead. I was released from Mrs. Boyden’s charge and told to cram for Latin. The decision was easier made than executed; after a year the intricate carpentry of Virgil’s language—the capricious declensions and conjugations, the gerunds and gerundives and the dreaded ablative absolute—had slipped away and had to be hastily stuffed back into my brain. The exam was almost as hard to pass as chemistry would have been. But I was rescued by memory and by an instinct for how languages work and was duly admitted to Princeton.
There I continued to skirt the courses that would have made me a more broadly educated man. I satisfied the science requirement by taking biology, which didn’t hold the terrors of chemistry and physics; any boob can dissect a dogfish. Besides, the dogfish and I had many systems in common. Poking about in its innards, I at least knew what I was looking for: heart and lungs and a digestive tract. Unlike the molecule, they could be seen and touched and examined.
On December 7 of my sophomore year, Pearl Harbor ended our reverie of life as an orderly succession of events. Our first impulse was to rush out and enlist, but we were told that “Washington” wanted us to stay in college and get educated for “the war effort.” So began the age of “acceleration” at Princeton. Through the winter, spring and summer of 1942 we took courses that were compressed and elided. Our education had the quality of a speeded-up movie; we became part junior before we finished being sophomores and never knew how many credits we were amassing. The main thing was that we were amassing wisdom, which Washington in its own wisdom would harness to smash the Axis. Meanwhile several gruff men on the gymnastics and physical education staff, whom I had naturally never seen before, labored with ill-concealed contempt to build our muscles. Washington wanted us to be tough.
By fall the texture of college life began to unravel. So many professors and students had slipped away that nobody knew who was still around. At the end of the term I also left and enlisted in the army. By then I was more senior than junior, my credits badly tangled. But it could all be straightened out when I came back.
My next three credits I earned just by putting on a uniform. Princeton decided that time spent in the service was time educationally spent, and in my case that was true. My love of remote travel was born on the morning after my troopship landed in Morocco; I awoke to a landscape so startlingly beautiful and exotic—my first glimpse of the Arab world—that I’ve never forgotten the impact of the moment. We were informed of Princeton’s decision about the extra credits in one of the letters that President Dodds periodically wrote to all of us who had gone off to war—letters that caught up with us in places where we had never expected to be. One of them reached me in a sand-blown tent near the Algerian town of Blida, and it enclosed a complete list of Modern Library titles. The university would like to send us three books, President Dodds wrote; we should just check our choices. I did, and my three books reached me six months later in a snow-blown tent near the Italian city of Brindisi.
When the war in Europe ended, in May of 1945, the troopships taking men home were assigned to France and England; the Mediterranean theater would have to wait. In July, however, I heard that the army was establishing a college in Florence to keep at least some of its soldiers occupied. Eager for more credits, whatever odd form they might take, I applied and was allowed to attend. Our campus was an aeronautical academy that Mussolini had built in his best Fascist style.
I knew nothing about art, so I decided to take art history courses. It was the ideal time and place—Florence had just begun to bring back the statues and paintings that had been hidden during the war. Crowds of Florentines gathered to watch these installations, as they had when the works were new; it was a re-Renaissance. For me it was the best of summers. On weekends I hitchhiked to other Tuscan towns that were almost as rich: Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano and my favorite of them all, Siena. When the summer was over I received three certificates saying that I had passed three courses. But only I knew how much they certified.
In November a huge troopship finally came and took us home. Disgorged into civilian life, I needed to know whether my army credits would give me enough units to graduate. If not, I would have to go back to Princeton for one more term. When I had left I was sure I would want to return. Now I only wanted to be given my degree and to get started on whatever I was going to do next.
My hopes were not high, however, on the morning when I went to Princeton for an interview with the official who would judge my case. The certificates that I was clutching—the pieces of paper so gratifyingly won in Florence—now looked crude, wholly lacking in academic authority. I went into Nassau Hall and was told that my appointment was with Dean Root. Dean Root! I might as well turn around and go back to New York.
Robert K. Root, who was then in his seventies, was dean of the Princeton faculty. I had never met him, but I had taken his sophomore course in English literature and listened week after week to his lectures. They were stern disquisitions, raining on our unappreciative heads the fruits of lifelong scholarship, excavating with dry precision the buried ironies of Swift and the unsuspected jests of Pope, which even then I continued not to suspect. My only other view of Dean Root was at the head of the procession that commenced the service every Sunday morning in Princeton’s chapel. Gray and solemn, bowed under robes representing the highest honors of Academia, he seemed to belong to Oxford or Edinburgh, not to brash young America. Surely such a man, guardian of Princeton’s virtue, would scorn the grab bag of credits I now emptied at his feet.
Dean Root studied my Princeton transcript gravely. Then he studied my certificates and said he had never seen anything like them. Next he began adding up my credits. I could tell that he didn’t know how much weight to give my army learning. I could also tell that he wasn’t optimistic. I remembered that he had a habit of chewing the inside of his cheek, and now his mouth was working rapidly. He shook his head and mumbled that I seemed to be a little short of the necessary total.
Then, imperceptibly, the arid dean disappeared and I was talking with a person. He asked me what I had done in the army, and where I had gone, and what I had thought about. I could hardly believe that it was the same Dean Root. Was this the face that had cowed three generations of students since he had been hired as a young instructor by an earlier president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson? I found myself talking to him with enthusiasm, describing my travels in North Africa and my trips to Rome and my Renaissance summer in Florence and my visits to Siena and the other Tuscan towns. By then I was sure that I didn’t have enough credits and that the official part of my interview was over. Not until later did I realize that this was the only part that mattered to Dean Root.
At the end a look of sadness came into Dean Root’s eyes and he said, “Tell me—I suppose Siena was mostly destroyed during the war?” I realized that I was the first messenger to come back from Tuscany. Suddenly I understood what Siena would mean to this quintessential humanist; probably Dean Root had first visited Siena as a young man himself. Suddenly it was possible to understand that Dean Root had once been a young man. I told him that Siena hadn’t been touched by the war and that the great striped cathedral was still there.
Dean Root smiled fleetingly and saw me to the door. He said the university would inform me of its decision soon. Not long afterward he wrote to tell me I had met Princeton’s requirements for a degree and would be given my diploma at a special graduation for returning servicemen early in 1946. I’ve always suspected that he waived one or two credits to make my total come out right. I’ve also thought that if Siena had been destroyed I would have had to go back for another term.
But one thing I’m sure of: My education really began that day in Nassau Hall. Dean Root freed me to get on with my life. Learning, he seemed to be saying, takes a multitude of forms; expect to find them in places where you least expect them to be.
In January I rented a cap and gown and received my dubious B.A. and went out into the world. Several months later I got a job with the New York Herald Tribune and began what has turned out to be a career of trying to write clearly and—as an editor and a teacher—to help other people to write clearly. I’ve become a clarity nut. I’ve also become a logic nut. I’m far less preoccupied than I once was with individual words and their picturesque roots and origins and with the various fights over which new ones should be admitted into the language. Those are mere skirmishes at the edge of the battlefield; I will no longer man the ramparts to hurl back such barbarians as “hopefully.”
What does preoccupy me is the plain declarative sentence. How have we managed to hide it from so much of the population? Far too many Americans are prevented from doing useful work because they never learned to express themselves. Contrary to general belief, writing isn’t something that only “writers” do; writing is a basic skill for getting through life. Yet most American adults are terrified of the prospect—ask a middle-aged engineer to write a report and you’ll see something close to panic. Writing, however, isn’t a special language that belongs to English teachers and a few other sensitive souls who have a “gift for words.” Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly—about any subject at all.
How, you might ask, do I know that—I who so diligently avoided all the courses I thought I was too dumb to understand or was too lazy to grapple with? I know it because my work has been the education I avoided. Over the years I’ve written or edited hundreds of articles on subjects I had never previously thought about. No other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge. I’ve not only met a wide variety of interesting people doing things that astonished and delighted me. I’ve found that their ideas were never so specialized that I couldn’t grasp them by writing about them or by editing someone else’s writing about them: by breaking the ideas down into logical units, called sentences, and putting one sentence after another. Along the way I’ve also discovered that knowledge is not as compartmented as I thought it was. It’s not a hundred different rooms inhabited by strangers; it’s all one house. Hermes and the periodic table are equally its household gods, and writing is the key that opens the door.
That’s what this book is about.

2. Writing Across the Curriculum

One spring day in 1985 I got a telephone call from a professor named Thomas Gover at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college of Lutheran origins in St. Peter, Minnesota. He wanted to tell me about a new program at his college tha he thought would interest me. It did. In fact, it’s what got me thinking about this book.
He said that in the fall term Gustavus Adolphus would launch a curriculum in which seventy-five courses, covering the entire spectrum of a baccalaureate education, would be listed with a “W,” meaning that writing would be a required part of the course, that it would be a factor in the student’s grade, and that the teachers would work with the students on the process of organizing, writing and rewriting their papers and reports. Three “W” courses would be required for graduation.
The call crystallized an idea I realized I felt strongly about: that the teaching of writing should no longer be left just to English teachers but should be made an organic part of every subject. The idea, which goes by the name of “writing across the curriculum,” has been very much in the air among educators for at least a decade. But I had never heard of any school or college actually trying it. (I’ve since heard of many.) That’s why the call from Minnesota excited me. It was a chance to see the idea in action and to find out whether it was as important a trend as I thought it was.
Professor Gover asked if I would like t...

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